The announcement of a royal commission into Crown Melbourne’s suitability to hold a casino licence is likely the final nail in the coffin of James Packer’s reign, according to shareholder activist Stephen Mayne.
But “the casino is never going away”.
Two weeks after the Bergin Inquiry deemed Crown unfit to operate its $2.2 billion casino in Barangaroo, Sydney, Mr Mayne told The New Daily the Victorian government’s copycat inquiry spelled “the end of Packer control”.
“He’s been trying to tough it out, but I think it’s going to be impossible now. You can’t have three inquiries and then say, ‘Oh, it’s fine, he stays in control’,” Mr Mayne said.
“It’s not. It all comes down to him and the way he’s chosen to run it.”
The Andrews government announced the establishment of the royal commission on Monday afternoon and has appointed former federal court judge Raymond Finkelstein QC as commissioner.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the move was driven by a desire to ensure “those who hold a casino licence in Victoria uphold the highest standards of probity and integrity – and that they’re accountable for their actions”.
Mr Mayne said the announcement was “long overdue”.
It comes five years after ABC’s Four Corners linked Crown to organised crime and almost two years after a similar bombshell investigation by Channel Nine and its newspapers.
Establishing a royal commission gives Mr Finkelstein and his team the powers to compel witnesses and documentation.
Mr Mayne said this would prove very important and should be used to squeeze difficult answers out of politicians.
“I think Finkelstein should call current and past premiers, because Crown has been a massive political donor,” he said, after referring to former premier Jeff Kennett’s poker machine servicing contract.
“Looking at the whole history of Crown’s often inappropriate relationships with politicians and political parties, with all the big political donations and all the ex-politicians they hire, I think that should also be examined.”
Among other things, Mr Mayne said the commission should consider introducing a ban on political donations like they have done in WA; explore Helen Coonan’s suitability as Crown’s executive chairman; delve into the death threats allegedly levelled by Mr Packer at private equity executive Ben Gray in 2015; and investigate whether Crown can run a high roller business without turning a blind eye to money laundering.
“If you have a serious regime of know your customer and report every suspicious transaction, then a lot of the business will disappear, because, let’s be honest, a lot of that high roller business has been money laundering,” Mr Mayne said.
The shareholder activist and founder of Crikey.com said the “No.1 thing that needs to happen is the removal of Packer as effectively the joint venture party to the state government”.
But he said the casino was never going away, as Crown, which is the state’s largest single-site employer, had invested $2 billion into the site and had a licence.
“I think it will just be legislation to put new tougher conditions on the licence, changes of personnel in charge, dramatically reduced high roller business, and maybe even a move to cashless gaming and cash being completely removed from the casino,” Mr Mayne said.
Monash University gambling studies professor Charles Livingstone said if the royal commission followed the same pattern as the Bergin Inquiry there would be very serious consequences for Crown Melbourne.
“We would expect there to be very significant damage to Crown and its corporate reputation,” he said.
“Mr Packer will almost certainly have to step back, and the board and the company will have to be thoroughly reinvigorated if they are to retain the licence.”
Immediately after the royal commission was announced, media buyer Harold Mitchell became the latest Crown director to resign from the company’s board after the Bergin inquiry handed down its final report.
Four directors of the nine-member board have now stepped down since Crown was deemed unfit to hold a casino licence in New South Wales.
Crown executive chairman Helen Coonan said Crown would fully co-operate with Victoria’s royal commission.
“Crown welcomes the announcement from the Victorian government as it provides an opportunity to detail the reforms and changes to our business to deliver the highest standards of governance and compliance, and an organisational culture that meets community expectations,” she said in a statement.
“Victorians should be assured we recognise the responsibility placed on us by the community, governments and regulators and we will fully co-operate with the Royal Commission.”